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Friday, December 01, 2006

Pistons Extend Winning Streak to 7 With 87-85 Victory Over the Heat

Detroit trailed for most of the game, but eventually wore down Miami for an 87-85 win in the first half of TNT's Thursday night doubleheader. Rip Hamilton led the Pistons with 24 points. He scored nine of Detroit's 18 first quarter points as Miami led by seven going into the second quarter. Detroit started out the game by shooting 3-11 from the field while committing four turnovers. Flip Murray came off the bench to provide a boost with eight points in the second quarter and Detroit trimmed the Miami lead to 45-42 at halftime. The Heat clearly did not have a lot left in the tank, even against a Pistons team that was hardly hitting on all cylinders (so to speak). TNT's Charles Barkley predicted at halftime that Detroit would win the game and went so far as to say that Detroit will finish the season with the best record in the East (more on that topic later).

Hamilton's layup with 8:26 left in the third quarter tied the score for the first time, 49-49. The Heat rebuilt their lead to 55-49, but the Pistons closed the period with a 17-9 run to take a 66-64 lead into the fourth quarter. Hamilton scored six of the 17 points.

Murray's jumper with 9:41 remaining put Detroit up 71-65 and the Heat seemed to be fading fast--but Miami scored seven straight points in less than two minutes to regain the lead, 72-71. Then it was Detroit's turn to make a run, as Chauncey Billups hit two three pointers and Rasheed Wallace made one in a 13-4 burst that put Detroit up 84-76. Miami rallied again but could get no closer than 86-85. Wade's attempt to make a game winning jumper barely grazed iron with less than two seconds left and Hamilton made a free throw to close out the scoring.

The game was a rematch of the last two Eastern Conference Finals but did not feel that way; Detroit's heart and soul, Ben Wallace, now plays for the Chicago Bulls and the Heat are now just 6-9, including a 4-7 record without Shaquille O'Neal, who is sidelined with a knee injury. Miami went 11-12 last year when O'Neal was not in the lineup, so it is becoming increasingly clear that, despite Dwyane Wade's obvious gifts, the Heat are basically a .500 team--or worse--when O'Neal is not on the court. Wade finished with 21 points, eight assists and five rebounds in 46 minutes but he shot only 5-23 from the field. He never found a rhythm, either, shooting 1-3 in the first quarter, 1-5 in the second quarter, 1-8 in the third quarter and 2-7 in the fourth quarter. Also, Barkley and Kenny Smith pointed out a lapse in judgement by Wade on the game's final play. Wade held on to the ball and ran the clock down despite the fact that Miami was trailing by one; the correct play would be to take the shot more quickly, leaving enough time for an offensive rebound or a foul--even if Detroit made two free throws, Miami would still have had a chance to send the game into overtime with a three pointer. TNT's Ernie Johnson spoke up in Wade's defense, noting that Wade was probably exhausted from trying to carry the team for the entire game (I don't recall anyone saying that about Kobe Bryant last year when he carried a team without a legitimate post presence into the playoffs...).

During the game, Doug Collins, TNT's outstanding analyst, agreed with Barkley that Detroit will finish with the best record in the East. Detroit Coach Flip Saunders thinks that way, too, and has publicly said that the Pistons will be a better playoff team this year than last year--bold words for someone who guided Detroit to the best record in the league in 2005-06 only to barely beat playoff neophyte Cleveland in a seven game series. The East is so weak this year that anything could happen but there is no way that Detroit is a better team without Ben Wallace, which is the undertone to Saunders' remark. He and Wallace feuded and Saunders wants to prove that the team is better off without the four-time Defensive Player of the Year. A simple glance at Detroit's year by year playoff record shows that this team is in decline: Champions in '04, Finalists in '05, Eastern Conference Finalists in '06. It will not be easy for the Pistons to reverse that trend this year without Wallace and, if they do, it will be more of a reflection on the weakness of the East than any alleged improvement that they have made.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:17 AM

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3 Comments:

At Saturday, December 02, 2006 11:45:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your comments regarding the Pistons are uncharacteristically simplistic and adversarial.

To infer that Flip Saunder's remark about being a better playoff team means he's saying the Pistons are basically a better team without Ben Wallace is shabby rhetoric. Argue with the claim at face value if you like, but don't distort it to suit your position.

If we agree that playoff basketball is different from the regular season, then perhaps improvement in offensive diversity and free throw shooting (not to mention the use of zones at a time when several of the top Eastern teams struggle with perimeter shooting) could offset Wallace's loss. That's an issue which pro-Wallace fans can argue against convincingly, but it's not a slam dunk.

As for the team being "obviously" in decline, maybe. But maybe not. I recall you saying the same thing last year before Detroit won 64 games, then recanting. Guess it wasn't so obvious then.

For those of us not in love with sweeping pronouncements or the majesty of our own opinion, a lot of basketball remains to be played. Being merely excellent the last two years does not guarantee a downward slide for Detroit. All it does it make them one of several favorites ... but a particularly experienced and dangerous one.

 
At Saturday, December 02, 2006 8:05:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Last year the Pistons did have a better regular season than I expected but when push came to shove in the playoffs they lost to the Heat--with Saunders benching Wallace at some key moments because Saunders thought that he could win with offense, even though the Pistons won their championship by focusing on defense.

My commentary about Saunders is neither "shabby rhetoric" nor a distortion of his beliefs. Why else other than Wallace's departure would Saunders say that the team will do better in the playoffs this year? That was clearly a shot at Wallace. Wallace's game does not fit in well with Saunders' idea of how to play and it is well documented that Saunders and Wallace did not see eye to eye. Whether Saunders wanted to get rid of Wallace or Wallace simply felt unwanted, their adversarial relationship was definitely a factor in Wallace signing with the Bulls (as was the money, of course).

Saunders' record as a playoff coach is not great--a bunch of first round exits; one Conference Finals loss in '04 when his team had the best record in the West, the MVP (Garnett), an All-Star point guard (Cassell) and a four-time All-Star at shooting guard (Latrell Sprewell); last year's Conference Finals loss after the Pistons dominated the regular season with a roster that included a four-time Defensive Player of the Year, two other All-Stars and a fourth All-Star caliber player (Prince).

Saying that the Pistons are in decline--if we define success based on postseason results and not regular season wins--is a fact, not an opinion; as you suggest, there is a lot of basketball left to be played this season and the Pistons may succeed in reversing the decline that has happened since they won the championship but I don't believe that replacing Wallace with Mohammed is a move that will lead to greater postseason success.

As for offensive diversity and free throw shooting, I think that I missed the memo about Nazr Mohammed being Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. His career regular season averages are 7.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg and .660 free throw shooting (his playoff numbers are about the same); Wallace's career averages are 6.6 ppg, 10.7 rpg and .418 free throw shooting. Pistons fans are really drinking the Kool-Aid provided by Pistons management if they believe that Mohammed's extra .5 ppg will make up for everything else that Wallace does better than Mohammed. Neither gets to the free throw line that often, so their poor to mediocre free throw shooting is not as big of an issue as it is with Shaq, who is usually the focal point of his team's offense. Wallace is a much better offensive rebounder and passer than Mohammed.

The Pistons referred to Saunders' sets as a "liberation offense" last year during their great regular season but they looked tight and ill prepared for much of the Cavaliers series; the Pistons' experience and having home court advantage for game seven enabled them to eventually prevail. Do you think that series goes seven games with Larry Brown as coach instead of Saunders?

The "liberation offense" will again do fine during the regular season but will sputter in the playoffs. The one caveat is that the East is so weak this year--Orlando is young and not playoff tested, Miami is mediocre without Shaq, the Bulls have been disappointing and Cleveland is learning how to be the "hunted" instead of the "hunter"-- that Detroit could actually be worse this year than last year but end up with a better result--but I doubt it; the first well coached team that Detroit runs into in the Eastern Conference playoffs that has the requisite talent level will knock off the Pistons. That team could be Cleveland, Miami (if Shaq comes back in time) or even Chicago--the Bulls have been a good second half team in recent years and I'm sure that Wallace would love nothing more than to send Detroit home early.

 
At Saturday, December 02, 2006 8:08:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I'll make this prediction now, before everyone jumps back on Chicago's bandwagon (I haven't left despite the turmoil) in a couple months: regardless of regular season records, Chicago will go further in the Eastern Conference playoffs in '07 than Detroit (assuming that B. Wallace, Hinrich and Nocioni are healthy).

 

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